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THIEF, THE (VOR)(director/writer: Pavel Chukhrai; cinematographer: Vladimir Klimov; editors: Marina Dobryanskaya/Natalia Kucherenko; cast: Misha Philipchuk (Sanya-6-years-old), Vladimir Mashkov (Toljan), Yekaterina Rednikova (Katya), Dima Shigarev (the 12-year-old Sanya), Amalya Mordvinova (doctor’s wife); Runtime: 97; Lions Gate Films; 1997-Russia)
“The powerful persona that is evoked by Mashkov, a Russian stage actor and romantic star of cinema, makes the melodramatics more convincing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Certain people just never have any luck. Katya (Yekaterina) is such a person. Katya’s husband died on the front during WW11 and this attractive young lady is left with a child, Sanya (Misha), to raise on her own. It is now 1952 and she boards a train with her 6-year-old Sanya and a handsome soldier flirts with her, and she instinctively takes up with him. She is happy to have someone strong to take care of her. The film is narrated by the child who is now an adult, speaking in a voiceover, telling about how that event on the train when the soldier, Toljan (Mashkov), acted as a father to him, was the most momentous time of his life. But that moment of glee was irrevocably changed, as the soldier eventually stole away the dreams and visions he once had. That the soldier turned out not only to be an army deserter but a thief who steals everything he can, even his mother’s heart (Can a Russian film be anything but ponderous?).

The strength of this symbolical film is in the way the director Pavel Chukhrai is able to explicitly show the harshness of the Stalin years, as it infected the daily life of its citizens. The thief himself has a tattoo of Stalin on his chest, which he uses to impress those who look at his strong body.

Katya (the symbol of mother Russia) slowly begins to see how rotten he is, despite his disarming smoothness and beguiling charm he could lay on at the drop of a hat. In the boarding house, they get a room under the false pretense that they are a family. Toljan invites all the boarders to the circus and he sneaks back to the house and robs them. Katya followed him home from the circus and cursed her fate when seeing what he was up to, but she fell in love with the rascal and made the choice of running away to the next town with him, anyway, in the hopes he could be a good father to her son and provide for the family.

Sanya would not call him father, only uncle, and found it difficult to adjust to the close attention the mother was paying to Toljan, that once went exclusively to him. He has constant haunting visions that his real father was watching him, wanting him to be loyal only to him.

Toljan’s way of introducing Sanya into manhood is to have the kid strike back at the boys who beat him. The threat of giving the strap to Sanya, makes the boy pee in his pants. Sanya is always peeing in his pants when he is frightened, which the shrewd Toljan acts upon to gain the confidence of the kid. He reassures him it is just fine to be afraid, and says he will eventually grow out of it. The kid is so hungry for real fatherly affection that this mock affection is enough for him to let his guard down against the professional con man, who epitomizes the evil of the Stalin years.

The weakness is that it is really not drama, but soap opera. The powerful persona that is evoked by Mashkov, a Russian stage actor and romantic star of cinema, makes the melodramatics more convincing. But the story seems contrived, without having an energy of its own.

The highlight of the film is when Sanya recognizes Toljan, at last, as his new father, who left him only a gun when he went to prison; he keeps the gun, trying to decide if he should go against his own nature and become like Toljan. But when Toljan deserts the family and his mother dies, he learns not to need anyone anymore.

Sanya runs into Toljan accidentally after 7 years and when Toljan doesn’t even remember him the 12-year-old boy is completely disillusioned, especially seeing that Toljan is still working his old con game; and, that, Sanya in one desperate moment of his life betrayed his real father and called Toljan father. This has made him stop believing in anything, anymore: “no more dreams, hopes, illusions; he is all alone in the world, there is only nothing, nothing to believe in.” He uses the only present he got from his new father to wipe out all his memories.

The story is just too pat to be that effective, except as a curious look at what the Russians themselves thought of Stalin and how they functioned under his regime during the ’50s. It is suggested that the only way for the country to be free is for the son, who is the future of the country, to kill the corrupt father (Stalin) who betrayed his family (country).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”